6 March, 2020

 To celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD), and to mark the start of British science week, we wanted to give a shout-out to all the female scientists out there, working to advance our lives – be it in the field of health, the environment or whatever field.  Women scientists, we salute you!

We caught up with Professor Val Speirs, a leading scientist in the field of breast cancer research and one of our own research grant recipients. She told us why she became a scientist, what it takes to do the job and provided some sound advice for those women who want to get ahead in science.

Q. Firstly, have you always wanted to be a scientist and what inspired you to become one?

A. I wanted to be a scientist from a young age and was always interested in biology and curious about how things worked. I did my first experiments in the kitchen at home, mixing things like vinegar, sugar, food colouring, bicarbonate of soda etc., taken from the kitchen cupboards. Drove my mum crazy when she went to get an ingredient from the cupboard only to find it had been used up in my latest experiment!

Q. You have been involved in breast cancer research for some time. Why this field of research?

A. I’ve been involved in breast cancer research for about 25 years. My PhD was actually in lung cancer. My first postdoctoral research position was in lung development but when this was ending, I knew I wanted to have a career in cancer research. The next project I was offered happened to be in breast cancer research, and I’ve remained in the field ever since.

Q. Does breast cancer research tend to attract women scientists?

A. Not especially. We’re seeing more and more female scientists in general (which is good), all working on various types of diseases, but in breast cancer, I’d say the balance is fairly even. Having said that, my team at the moment is all female!

Q. You also focus on non-animal research. Why is this?

A. Interestingly, one of the most successful breast cancer treatments in the 1970s, the discovery of Tamoxifen, involved the use of animals. But I work on the human condition, and for me, there is no better model than using human tissues to study human disease. We are very fortunate to have access to the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank, which provides access to human breast tissue for scientists. And with the technologies available in the 21st century, we should be thinking more laterally about developing models which more closely mirror human disease rather than continuing to rely on animal models.

Q. According to UNESCO UIS data, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. What do you think needs to happen to attract more women to work in science?

A. I’m surprised by that statistic. From my experience at conferences, I wouldn’t have imagined this. I think having good female role models can help young women and girls see what they could achieve in science. The aim of the Athena SWAN Charter was to establish career progression, success and good practice in gender equality for everyone in higher education and research institutions. The introduction of flexible working and Shared Parental Leave is also starting to have an impact on making science a more family-friendly career.

Q. What challenges have you faced in your career; has gender inequality been one of them?

A. I’ve been fairly lucky and have not encountered too many obstacles. I’ve been fortunate to have been ‘in the right place at the right time’ and able to take opportunities as they presented themselves. At the start of my career, I never really set out to be a professor. I just enjoyed being a scientist. It was only as my career progressed that I realised this might be a possibility. Progression to the professor was the biggest stumbling block. I was working in an environment where there were some rather old-fashioned, male-dominated views regarding career progression, and I didn’t get a lot of support in the beginning. But I kept going and finally made it!

Q. What advice would you give to women who want to become scientists?

A. Do it! Science is a great career. It can be very rewarding knowing you might be the first person to make a new discovery. Get yourself an enthusiastic mentor who is well respected in their field. Be tenacious. Be resilient. Life as a scientist is a series of peaks and troughs of successes, so if things don’t appear to be working, stick at it – it gets much easier with time!

Q. What other women scientists have inspired you?

A. Mina Bissell is pretty amazing and has done some wonderful work on understanding how the normal breast functions. For me, this is fundamental; in order to understand what goes wrong in breast cancer, you need to understand what is normal. I’m also inspired by the breast cancer patients I meet. I’ve been lucky to meet several of them over the years. These women have gone through some pretty tough times. It never ceases to amaze me how they bounce back and channel their energies into fundraising and advocacy work. It’s very humbling.

Q. Breast Cancer UK is co-funding some of your work on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals. How is your research going?

A. Our Breast Cancer UK-funded work is a PhD project being carried out by a very talented young lady called Kerri Palmer. Kerri is now in her second year of this 3-year project. She is examining how endocrine disrupting chemicals affect cells in the breast. She’s working on the effects of molecules called bisphenols. These are very tricky to work with as they stick to many substrates. So there have been some challenges along the away. Kerri has overcome these and is starting to generate lots of interesting and unexpected data.

Related Articles

7 June 2024

Housing 21 goes orange for Breast Cancer UK

A much-loved and respected colleague was shown how much she’s cared for by her co-workers when they organised a series of Breast Cancer UK´s Wear Something Orange fundraising events. ...

Read full story

7 June 2024

8 Free Fitness Apps

Ditch the dread and get fit instead: these fitness apps will make you want to move! Forget the treadmill torture! Ditch the dusty dumbbells! Getting in shape can be a...

Read full story

4 June 2024

Trio of sisters take on The Kiltwalk

A trio of sisters from Scotland have walked the equivalent of nearly a marathon to support their fundraising mum who is being treated for breast cancer. Calling themselves the Scott’s...

Read full story

31 May 2024

Mango avocado salad

This mango avocado salad recipe is proof that salads don't need to be bland or tasteless. You'll only need to set aside 15 minutes of your day to prepare this...

Read full story
Professor Val Speirs

A £10 donation today can help fund our PHD studentships to carry out world-class animal free research into the causes of breast cancer.


Donate £10
Woman on zoom call

A donation of £30 can help fund our Prevention Hub so your loved ones can learn how to reduce their risk.

Donate £20
people holding up hearts

Your donation of £50 can fund our animal free research and educational programmes to prevent breast cancer for future generations.

Donate £50
women wearing breast cancer uk t shirt and blue jeans

Just want to help in some way? donate an amount that feels right for you

Start Your Donation

Donate Now

Make a Donation


My One Time Donation

I want to make a one time donation of

Thank you. You’re just a few steps away from completing your donation.

+25% with Gift Aid

If you are a UK taxpayer, the value of your gift can be increased by 25% under the Gift Aid scheme at no extra cost to you.

This means that your donation of £100.00 could be worth an extra £25.00 to us, and it doesn't cost you a penny!

My Monthly Donation

I want to make a monthly donation

You’re just a few steps away from completing your donation.

+25% with Gift Aid

If you are a UK taxpayer, the value of your gift can be increased by 25% under the Gift Aid scheme at no extra cost to you.

This means that your donation of £100.00 could be worth an extra £25.00 to us, and it doesn't cost you a penny!

One Time Donation Monthly Donation
Make a donation with Gift Aid

Gift Aid is reclaimed by the Breast Cancer UK from the tax that I pay for the current tax year. If I pay less Income Tax and/or Capital Gains Tax than the amount of Gift Aid claimed on all my donations, it is my responsibility to pay any difference. Breast Cancer UK will reclaim 25p in tax back for every £1 I donate.

Your payment details

Your donation amount

Donation Allocation (Optional)

Additional Comments (Optional)

Stay in Touch

We’d love to keep you posted on how your support can make a difference to Breast Cancer UK and the exciting ways you can support us in the future.

Please tick if you’re happy to receive information from us by:

By completing an online donation, your data will be handled in accordance with the Breast Cancer UK’s privacy policy, and the privacy policy of our payment processing supplier BBMS (a Blackbaud company).

Thank You Wall

If you donate over £50, as a way of saying thank you for your donation, we would like to feature your donation on our virtual thank you wall on our website.

Donations will only feature on the wall for up to two months depending on the level of donations we receive.

You must fill out all required fields before paying.


Need help making your donation?

If you need help to make a donation or have any questions about making one, please contact us…

Call 08456801322